Magazine article Sunset

Grape Lakes: Canada's Okanagan Valley Is a Young Wine Region Growing Up Fast. Here's Your Chance to Taste the Changes

Magazine article Sunset

Grape Lakes: Canada's Okanagan Valley Is a Young Wine Region Growing Up Fast. Here's Your Chance to Taste the Changes

Article excerpt

MY FAVORITE SCENE in the Disney animated classic Fantasia is the one in which the Earth evolves at warp speed, from a dark mass to a frenzy of erupting volcanoes and thundering dinosaurs. Normally, wine tasting does not make me think of this movie. But in the Okanagan, it kind of does.

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Let me explain. The wine scene in this achingly gorgeous British Columbia valley, with its long chain of lakes gleaming down the center, started heating up only about 20 years ago. That's when Okanagan winemakers, facing a new free-trade agreement with the United States, started ripping out the musky hybrid grapes they'd been using (mainly for jug wine) and furiously planting high-quality European varietals so that they could compete with American imports. They tried everything and anything, because the valley's unique geography--cooler in the north and hot in the south, with 100 miles of microclimates in between--makes it possible to grow an incredible range of cold- and hot-weather grapes.

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That's why wine tasting in the Okanagan today is so much fun: The valley is still in full-throttle discovery mode, with a 19 percent increase in the number of wineries in the past two years and different kinds of grapes going in all the time--nearly 60 varietals, planted all over the benchlands, hillsides, and valley floor. Where else are you going to find South African Pinotage, German Riesling, Swiss Chasselas, Italian Sangiovese, and French Mourvedre growing in such close proximity--and for the most part done well?

Add to this the Okanagan's natural beauty (it's a hallowed summer-vacation spot for Canadians), its wide range of non-wine-related things for the whole family to do (from riding the century-old Kettle Valley steam train and swimming in those pristine lakes to biking and hiking), and its lush orchards selling juicy peaches and cherries on the roadside, and you've got a wine-country experience like no other. A fantasia on its own terms, I'd say.

1. Sideways was wrong In this part of the world, Merlot is not the flabby beverage you may often have spurned. The cooler growing conditions brighten it and give it spine and structure and panache. Many Okanagan winemakers think of it as their "muscle wine"--and curiously, it's Cabernet Sauvignon that tends to be the juicy, softer partner in Merlot-Cab Sauv blends.

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2. Is that a saguaro? No, but if you're in the southern end of the Okanagan, you are in fact in a desert. Grapes that do well in blazing weather--like Zinfandel and Syrah (known here by its Australian name, Shiraz)--thrive in this part of the valley, where temperatures can reach 105[degrees] in summer.

3. And yet frost is fine Incredibly, the same patch of land can do ice as well as fire. In late November, frost settles over the vines, freezing any fruit left there. Pressed quickly, the grapes (usually Riesling, but sometimes Vidal or other varietals) yield ice wine, the intense, sweet golden wine for which Canada is famous. Because it's so labor intensive to produce and yields are so low, it's the most expensive wine you'll buy in the Okanagan, upward of $26 U.S. for a slender 150-ml. bottle. A nifty cocktail you'll see in the valley: ice wine topped with sparkling wine. …

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